Time and again in these years since 9/11 our right to privacy has been challenged in the name of security. I am proud of ALA, our national organization, for its ongoing efforts to protect the privacy of patrons despite being accused of being unpatriotic. This is an important part of making certain our libraries are safe places for everyone who uses them.
ALA, through the Office for Intellectual Freedom, works to safeguard the reading history of library users. Individual librarians have had resisted warrants demanding those records. As with dealing with challenged materials, it is a lonely fight and many don’t understand the importance of holding onto these principles when they feel the nation is being threatened by terrorists.
Re-read the Benjamin Franklin quote. In giving up a freedom we give those who seek to destroy our way of life what they want. We become more like them. It’s easy to think you have principles you believe in when no one challenges them. Standing up for them in the face of so many opposing you is when you discover what you are made of.
We have just concluded Choose Privacy Week, an annual initiative of ALA. Its purpose is to involve library users in a discussion of “privacy in a digital age.” It is increasingly difficult to have any degree of privacy in today’s world. Security cameras are everywhere and while I, too, recognize it is a protection against criminal behavior, sometimes in my head I hear the words of George Orwell, “Big Brother is watching you.” Our phones can be used to track us. We choose to use (and I do) E-Z pass, or whatever it’s called where you are to go through tolls without stopping, which records our actions. Ads on the side of my Facebook page remind me of where I just shopped and thanks to countless searches on my computer, Google “knows” a great deal about me and my preferences.
In this world of surveillance, at least what we choose to read should be our own business. As school librarians, we also have the responsibility of keeping what students are reading private. If asked, we must tell a parent or guardian. They are still minors. Be sure your automation system has been disabled so it does not maintain a record. Most ILS systems don’t keep the record as a default, but you should check. Once an item has been returned it should disappear from the student’s reading history.
Sending out overdue notices can be an easy way to violate student privacy. Teachers should not get a list of what their students’ overdue books. Although it takes more time, either put them in envelopes or only give the name of the student and the number of overdues.
End-of-the-year notices present a more difficult problem. Where students can’t get their report cards until they complete their library obligations, it is customary to hand a list of student names with outstanding items to the school secretary who deals with returns, late fees, and lost book charges during the summer. There isn’t much you can do about that, but make a point of informing the secretary that what students have borrowed is private, and as with other information she learns throughout the year, it is to be kept confidential.
The website for Choose Privacy Week had a highly informative blog with ideas for what to do to inform users about their privacy rights and how to safeguard it. The post on Resources for Teaching Privacy offered information on How to Teach Internet Safety in Primary School and a Teen Privacy Guide.
School librarians strive to make the library a safe, welcoming environment. Protecting the privacy of our users is one way we ensure they feel safe – and welcomed.